Classroom Practice - When student voice is worth shouting about
"Undoubtedly, 14-year-olds can sometimes be insightful. But more often they are likely to be banal, arbitrary and shallow - and ill-equipped to evaluate pedagogic expertise."
So wrote Claire Fox, director and founder of the British thinktank the Institute of Ideas, in TESS last month, about the hotly disputed topic of student voice ("Why student voice has gone way too far", Comment, 18 October). Although student voice varies from country to country, the basic idea is to give students a say in their own education.
Yet despite student voice's growth in popularity over the past 20 years, Fox is not alone in her views. Teachers, some believe, have gone through extensive training to gain the expertise to be able to teach a class, whereas students have no pedagogical knowledge and no idea what is best for them. So although it is fine to give students a council, through which they can have a nominal say in the direction of the school or lobby for longer break times, they do not have the capacity to tell a teacher how to do their job - and no real right to do so.
Subscribers to these views would wince on a visit to Ontario, Canada. Here, students just don't tell the teachers how to do their jobs, they also tell the minister for education how to do hers. The initiative, called SpeakUp, is open to all students in grades 7-12 (ages 12-18) in Ontario's public education system. It works on three levels: in the classroom, where students give input on teaching and how the school is run; at regional forums, where they can submit more general teaching and policy ideas; and at a Minister's Student Advisory Council consisting of 60 young people representing a cross section of the school body in terms of age and background.
"The ministry makes every effort to consider and respond to the ideas of young people," says Gary Wheeler, a spokesman for Ontario's ministry of education.
Clearly, Ontario believes that students are far from "ill-equipped". Moreover, Wheeler claims that the performance of students and teachers has improved as a result of the initiative. And this positive opinion of student voice is not an isolated one.
"When students have a voice in how they are taught, they tend to be more engaged in their schoolwork, developing a deeper understanding of not only what, but also how, they are learning. Such engagement and deepening of understanding make them better learners," says Alison Cook-Sather, professor of education at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, US.
Dana Mitra, associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, adds: "Research has found that students can improve academically when teachers construct their classrooms in ways that value student voice - especially when students are given the power to work with their teachers to improve curriculum and instruction."
Yet critics maintain that student voice undermines and deprofessionalises teaching, regardless of the supposed benefits. Not so, says Susan Piers-Mantell, who runs the student voice organisation Learning to Lead in the UK.
"Teachers report back that, far from undermining them, it provides opportunity for relationships to develop, mutual respect to grow and learning to flourish," she says.
Cook-Sather agrees: "Students' experiences and insights can complement teachers' disciplinary and pedagogical expertise; their perspectives enrich teachers' understanding of what is and what could be happening in their classrooms."
John Walmsley, principal at UWC Atlantic College in South Wales, which uses student voice extensively, believes the "undermining" argument is simply code for fear. "On the whole the kickback is from those teachers who are worried about whether their pedagogy is up to scratch," he says.
Dr Julia Flutter from the University of Cambridge, who has researched student voice extensively, agrees that fear is a factor in the criticism of student voice but in a slightly different context. "The fear is that students will use their voice to either just tell teachers what they want to hear - which is a waste of time - or to be deliberately antagonistic with their view. However, in successful student voice initiatives this is rarely the reality," she explains.
Finding the right path
Sadly, successful initiatives are increasingly rare, according to Flutter. She says that "in some instances, student voice has lost its way". So what does a good programme look like?
At Atlantic College, teachers are encouraged to have off-the-cuff discussions about pedagogy with students. In addition, questionnaires are sent out at the end of each course, and students are also consulted for staff appraisals via surveys.
In Ontario, surveys are also used, but they are complemented by focus groups and direct student consultations, as well as spontaneous discussions in class.
Flutter is uncomfortable with the "formal" questionnaire approach. She argues that teachers need to facilitate student voice in a personal way. She recommends that teachers should discuss with small groups what worked or did not work in a lesson. Alternatively, students could have learning diaries where they note down when something does not quite work for them and then discuss it with a teacher at the end of a unit.
Cook-Sather agrees that student voice has to be part of an "ongoing conversation" between teacher and student. She warns, though, that teachers have to be careful not to take passing conversations as indicative of the view of the whole class. "There can be negative impacts if only a select few students are consulted and their perspectives are taken to be representative," she says.
Teachers should also ensure that student participation is ingrained in the culture of the classroom, says Rachel Roberts, director of the Phoenix Education Trust, a charity that promotes and supports democratic education.
"If the group are required to work together to overcome issues such as behaviour management then they develop a genuine motivation to each play their part and make the lessons work," she explains. "The use of circle time practices (whole-class discussion activities in a set format) can be an excellent method through which to do this."
Flutter says that school leaders have to play their part, too. "Student voice has to be feedback to the teacher not the school leadership," she says. "The teacher needs to know the comments are for them only, not as part of some way of punishing or checking up on teachers."
Clearly, there are traps into which teachers - and schools - can fall. And some of the negative publicity can be attributed to those who have been snared in those traps. A steer in the right direction may change the views of many. Yet some teachers simply don't - and never will - see the value of letting students tell them how to do their jobs. The pro camp has a quote that they hope may persuade some of the doubters. It comes from a speech by Robin Alexander, chair of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, given at the trust's launch in September.
"(The priority) is to abandon the tokenism that too often attaches to the idea of children's voice, and celebrate children's voice and rights in school and classroom in accordance with the (United Nations) Convention of the Rights of the Child. Children, says the convention, 'have a right to be involved in decisions about their own learning', so children's voice is as much about pedagogy as school councils."
In short: although you may not like student voice, it is arguably your legal duty to give it due consideration.
Some criticise student voice, saying it undermines teachers and is ineffective because students lack the knowledge and training to know what good pedagogy looks like.
But advocates of the idea counter that young people are "experts" in being taught and have valid contributions to make.
These supporters believe that making student voice part of the classroom toolkit through group discussion, learning diaries and questionnaires brings benefits to teachers and students.
Witness democracy in action with these tips on promoting best practice in student voice projects.
For more on Ontario's SpeakUp project, see bit.lyOntarioVoice
Tom Bennett speaks for teachers in his less-than-impressed blogs on student voice.